Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Promise

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).

Can you lose your salvation?

It is important that believers feel secure in their salvation. The person who does not feel like their salvation is a settled issue will be looking for the next thing they need to do to keep God happy with them. The person who is sure of their salvation will be able to live a life of holiness out of love and gratitude rather than fear, so we need to get this straight.

Unfortunately, this is another place where there isn’t really a “mere evangelical” view. Though those who believe you can lose your salvation are in the minority, it’s a sizable minority. (Most who believe this think it requires serious sin. It is not lost by your next white lie or lustful thought.) I am going to make the case that you cannot lose your salvation. I believe in the security of the believer for several reasons.

First is Jesus’ words. Jesus said his sheep “shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” As Tony Evans puts it, “No one includes every ‘someone’ in the universe.”1 Neither the Devil, nor his fallen angels, nor even you can take yourself out of Christ’s hand.

Second is the cross. “If any sin can undo a believer’s salvation ... then Christ’s death did not pay for that sin. But it did, Paul asserts.”2 Either the cross of Christ was sufficient for our sins or it wasn’t. There is no in-between.

Third is the very concept of grace. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith ... not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9). We cannot cease to merit salvation because we never merited in the first place.

Fourth is adoption. “If God in love has made Christians his children ... the family relationship must be an abiding one, lasting forever. Perfect parents do not cast off their children.”3

Finally, the doctrine of election. Whatever else it means, election means that God knows those who are his. “For those God foreknew he also predestined ... And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Rom 8:29-30). In God’s mind, not only our justification but our ultimate glorification were past tense before we were even born.

I believe this makes a solid case for eternal security. However, as important as this doctrine is, it also carries some danger. There are many who live like the devil believing they will go to heaven because “once saved, always saved.” Maybe they prayed the “sinner’s prayer” at church camp or signed a card in vacation Bible school decades ago. Whatever their reason, they think they’re set and can live however they want. So we need to look at the qualifications for having eternal security.

Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” How do you know if you’re one of Jesus’ sheep? You listen to him and follow him. It is not the following him that saves. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith....” But “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Saving faith produces works. Jesus’ sheep want to be more like Jesus.

The Lord warned about the person who “hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” And others will hear but “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Matt 13:20-22). So not everyone who “responds” to a gospel call truly believes.

So what do we do? “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith” (2Cor 13:5). How do we do that? I think the Lord has given us a wonderful tool for such a test in 1John. It ends with “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13, emphasis added), but before you get there, you have gone through several statements of “We know that we have come to know him if ....” Norm Geisler4 provides a nice summary of John’s tests:
  • If we keep his commandments (2:3)
  • If we walk in love (2:5)
  • If we love the brethren (ie, our fellow believers) (3:14)
  • If we love in deed, not only in word (3:19)
  • If we have the Holy Spirit within us (3:24)
  • If we don’t continue in sin* (5:18)
Assurance of eternal security is for those who have tested themselves and found the evidence of saving faith described in the scriptures. For those who have not tested themselves to claim it is presumptuous (as some accuse all who claim it), but for those who have passed the test, it is not presumption to believe the promises of our Lord and Savior. We can and should trust that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).

I encourage you to spend some time in 1John contemplating those conditional statements and his final encouragement for believers in 5:13-15.

* This refers to a practice of wilful sin, not those times in which we fail, because “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1John 1:9).

1 Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On
2 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology
3 JI Packer, Knowing God
4 Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology

Part of Christianity 101

Thursday, March 25, 2021

You Are What You Read

books in the head

In writing my series on theology over the last year, I've been trying to find what I think are at least moderately original ways to explain important concepts. In some re-reading I've been doing the last few weeks, I've found that those ideas weren't even remotely original — I'd just forgotten that I'd read them. Some things I'd read more than twenty years ago were still rattling around in my head even though I'd lost the attachment of the author's name.

I find this encouraging. I read books I think are important, but once I put them down I have a hard time remembering what I read. Sure, there are ways to improve your retention of the material, but you can't remember everything (unless you're one of those people with a photographic memory who busted up the curves in school). Realizing we can still hold onto things we don't even realize we read makes me feel better about all those books I can no longer summarize off the top of my head. The big ideas may still be in here somewhere.

And so might the bad ideas. The encouragement is also a warning. I know I have read things I disagreed with that, over time, I came to accept. Some of those things I probably thought through and realized my initial objection was wrong. Others may have simply been an emotional response to something new that I overcame. But let's face it, we all get used to things we see and hear over and over. Our culture didn't have a long, reasoned discussion on the merits of same-sex relationships; we got used to it because of what we kept seeing on TV. Bad ideas can rattle around in our heads just as much as good ones, and in the process they can become accepted, like that grumpy guy at work you sorta like now or that ache you've become accustomed to.

So we have to be careful what we allow to take up residence in our minds. What we read, watch, and listen to can affect us more than I think we realize. Especially in our entertainment — if they can make us laugh or roll our eyes at something, they can change how we feel about it. We have to keep in mind the warning hidden in Romans 12:2 that we will be shaped by either the world or the Word.

Let us go forth in the knowledge that we are what we read (and watch and listen to) and make wise choices.

Image via Pixabay

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Elect

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph 1:3-4).

Election, aka predestination, is a hot topic among Protestant Christians today, so there really is no “mere evangelical” approach, yet it’s too important a topic to ignore, if only because it is such a hot topic. And besides the drama we create, the New Testament uses the language of election too frequently to ignore it.

The basic idea of election is that God chooses who will be saved. There are various ways people have tried to understand that concept and to reconcile it with other truths we see in scripture such as human responsibility. The Reformed view (of which Calvinism is a subset, even though that name is often used by non-adherents to refer to the entire umbrella of the Reformed perspective) says that God literally has a predetermined list of who will be given the ability to believe in Christ. The Arminian view is that God knows who will believe if given the opportunity and has made a list of those people beforehand.

Those are the extremes. In the middle are people who hold mostly to one view but not quite all the way (eg, “four-point Calvinists”) and people who freely mix and mingle the positions. The average modern Baptist is, in my experience, mostly Arminian with a little Calvinism mixed in. Then there are those who stake out alternative positions by applying Molinism (or “middle knowledge” — the idea that God knows what “would happen if ...”).

Finally there are those, like me, who simply refuse to try to reconcile the tension between God’s sovereignty and human will and responsibility. The scriptures teach both, so how they coexist is taken as a mystery — much like the Trinity or the dual natures of Christ — that human beings simply cannot understand, a mystery that we just need to make peace with.

Those are the “camps.” Now I want you to put all of that out of your mind, because it doesn’t matter. How salvation, how election, works is God’s business. We cannot know who is and who is not elect, nor does any understanding of election change the Great Commandments or the Great Commission.

So why does the Bible teach it? As my pastor in college put it, lo these many years ago, “election is about worship.” See how Paul treats it in Ephesians 1:3-6:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

This is one of my favorite passages of the Bible, largely because in the Greek the whole paragraph and the next are one long run-on sentence. Paul, normally so logical and eloquent, is tripping over himself to describe God’s magnificent and amazing love for us and the grace he has shown us. And it starts with this: “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

Election is not about figuring out who is going to be saved. Election is not about figuring out how salvation works. Election is about the glorious truth that, before the very foundation of the world, God looked through time and called you by name and said, “I want that one.”

He saw all the ways humans will rebel. He saw all of my sin. He saw all the blackest things I’m capable of. And he wanted me anyway. That is why we worship our electing, sovereign God.

Rather than recommend any particular books, my advice is, if you are inclined to study this topic, to read Calvinists on Calvinism and Arminians on Arminianism. A Calvinist’s explanation of Arminianism (or vice versa) will not be the strongest case for the view. Let each side present what they believe and why.

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Evangelism and Apologetics

It's easy to think that evangelism and apologetics are separate, even opposite. After all, evangelism is telling people about Jesus, and apologetics is arguing with them, right? I'm going to make the case that evangelism requires two hands: the gospel is the right hand and apologetics the left.

I think we can boil the message of the NT down to this:
  • Jesus said the world will be judged.
  • Jesus said the proof of his authority would be rising from the dead.
  • Jesus rose from the dead.
  • Therefore, the world will be judged, so you need to believe on Jesus and repent of your sins.

We can quibble over whether that is a good statement of the gospel message another time; it'll serve to make my point, which is that someone out there will object to just about every one of those statements.

Jesus said the world will be judged: How do we know he said that? Why should we believe that the gospels accurately convey what he said? How do we know the gospels we have are the same as the ones that were written. Why should the world be judged; wouldn't a loving God forgive people their sin? Wait, what is this sin thing — morality is relative and there are no "sins." The world is not going to be judged, and neither are you, because there is no God.

Jesus said the proof of his authority would be rising from the dead: Jesus didn't say that; his followers made it up years after his death. It's not possible to know the future, so Jesus could not have known that he was going to be crucified.

Jesus rose from the dead: That's impossible; dead people don't do that. Why should we believe Jesus rose from the dead? That's just a legend that grew up generations after Jesus and his first followers died. The disciples stole the body, or hallucinated, or lied. Or copied earlier pagan myths about dying and rising gods.

So you need to believe on Jesus and repent of your sins: "Believe" means to accept something you know isn't true. "Repent" suggests I've done something wrong, and I haven't. I don't want to be a Christian because Christians are hypocrites. Jesus works for you, but my religion works for me, so I'll be fine. It's cruel to say that you have to follow Jesus one way to be saved. 

We can, we should, prepare to answer those questions because we know they're likely to come. Besides our concern for the other's immortal soul, a stumped Christian sends the message that we have not thought this through, that there is no intellectual basis for our faith, or that Christianity is a religion for a bygone era. An objection gently answered, even if it's not as convincing an answer as they would like, sends the opposite message — we have thought this through, and you don't have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian.

There may be times when you'll share the gospel with someone who is ready to receive it, and they'll accept every word you say, but I'll bet you're going to get more resistance than that from the average postmodern American or European. Having the gospel in one hand and apologetics in the other will allow you to answer questions and address objections. Maybe you won't always get people to the "accept Jesus" stage, but you'll leave them with something to think about, and that may in time grow in their hearts so that the next person who shares the gospel with them will reap the benefit of your hard work.

Image via Pexels

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Process

You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1Cor 6:11).

Salvation is an event, a process, and a promise. How can it be all three? Whenever you see the word “salvation” in the Bible, ask “saved from what?”

We are saved in a moment from the penalty of our sins (ie, justification). We are saved over time from the power of sin (ie, sanctification). We will be saved from the presence of sin after this life ends (ie, glorification), and our salvation (ie, justification) will be made complete when we stand before the judgement seat of God. Here we will focus on sanctification.

holiday china
The word “sanctify” is related to the idea of holiness and has the same dual meaning. When we are saved, we are sanctified — that is, we are set apart for God. Like the fine china your grandmother only used on special occasions, we are set aside for God’s special use.

The other meaning though, is to be morally pure, holy — “bearing an actual likeness to God.”1 That is a process.

The process begins when we are saved. We are saved by faith, but saving faith yields repentance. The saved do not want to live like they did before; they want to be like Jesus. A lack of that in a life is a warning sign that should be investigated. Boice says, “One of the early signs of the saving work of God is the life of an individual is dissatisfaction with sin and a striving for holiness. But neither dissatisfaction on the one hand nor striving on the other is the same as holiness itself. Holiness is a goal toward which we move.”2

The process will continue your whole life. Like so many aspects of the Christian Faith, it consists of two truths that must be held in tension.

On the one hand, sanctification is the work of God the Holy Spirit: “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Cor 3:18).

On the other hand, sanctification requires effort on our part: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self ... and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24).

These verses do not contradict each other but supplement each other. Sanctification is the work of the human through the power of God in cooperation with the Spirit. “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed ... continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil 2:12-13).

Over time, we should become more and more like Jesus. But that process is never going to be complete in this life. And “sanctification does not progress in a steady line from the starting point of conversion until we are home in glory. For the most part, there is steady growth in the Christian life, but there are peaks and valleys.”3 We will still sin. But “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness'' (1John 1:9).

But we cannot just say, “I’m always going to sin, so why bother” because “if we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth” (1John 1:6). Struggling with sin is expected. Not struggling against their sin is a sign that a person has not been regenerated.

Some will object to this, saying that we’re “free from the law” (Rom 8:2), and we are, but that does not excuse us to live any way we please. There is no book of the NT that does not teach that we need to try to live up to God’s expectations. That’s part of our adoption:

“[W]hile it is certainly true that justification frees one forever from the need to keep the law, or try to, as the means of earning life, it is equally true that adoption lays on one the abiding obligation to keep the law, as the means of pleasing one’s newfound Father. Law-keeping is the family likeness of God’s children; Jesus fulfilled all righteousness, and God calls us to do likewise.”4

We are saved from our sins; we are saved for good works: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10). His desire is that you go “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

The scriptures frequently compare the Christian life to a race — and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s long, hard work. “Here is a principle that may encourage you as you work out your salvation and seek to live as the sanctified person you already are. The principle is that rate multiplied by time equals distance. ... You can [increase the rate] by devoting the time and energy and commitment it takes to obey Christ and walk with him in holiness.”5

The scriptures promise the true believer “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6). He is not content to leave us as he found us. He will make us like Jesus. It will be a more pleasant process, however, if you get on board with the program.

“Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2Cor 7:1).

This just barely scratches the surface of this topic. I recommend The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges.

1 Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine
2 James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith
3 RC Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian
4 JI Packer, Knowing God, emphasis in original
5 Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On

Image via Pixabay

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Purpose

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son ... to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5).

God saved us “so that we might receive adoption.” Yes, he also granted us forgiveness of sins and redeemed us, reconciled us to himself and saved us from hell, but all of that was a means to an end, namely adoption. God’s plan was for us “to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29). JI Packer says, if he had to sum the gospel up in three words, he would say it is “adoption through propitiation.”1 Because we are united with Christ, we too are children of God.

We talk about, even sing about, being children of God, but I’m not sure we always get just how amazing that is. We creatures rebelled against our creator. We didn’t just wander off but took every opportunity to spit in his face. God would have been just to have turned our ancestors to ash; instead he redeemed fallen humans from the consequences of their actions at the cost of his own Son. If a human king had that kind of mercy on rebels, it would be grace for him to make them the lowest slaves in his house. It would beggar the imagination for him to treat them as friends. What king would adopt these traitors as his own children? But that is what God has done.

According to Packer, in the ancient Roman world, adoption was the way in which the childless rich found heirs. They would adopt young men who were respectable and responsible and would carry on the family name well. “In this case, however, God adopts us out of free love not because our character and record show us worthy to bear his name, but despite the fact that they show the very opposite.”1 “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God'' (1John 3:1)!

But aren’t all human beings children of God? No. Paul, preaching in Athens, quoted a pagan philosopher to say that all are God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28). But this same Paul emphasizes again and again that only God’s redeemed can call him “Father” (cf, Rom 8:12-17). As Boice says, God is creator of all and sustainer of all, so humans can be said to be God’s “offspring”, but “there are no privileges attached to this more general ‘fatherhood.’”2

What privileges do Christians have? First, we can call God “Father”:

“[Y]ou sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. ... For everything that Christ taught, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. ‘Father’ is the Christian name for God.”1

Because we are given the right to call God “Father”, we approach him in prayer not as supplicants but as children (Matt 6:9, Rom 8:15-16). And we are now “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17) and have been given the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Eph 1:13).

Also, he disciplines us (Heb 12:5-11). That may seem like an odd privilege, but heirs are raised with discipline; it is the illegitimate son that the king would spoil. Heirs undergo extra training to forge them into the rulers they will need to be; so it is with God’s adopted children.

We should live out the Christian life in light of this adoption. Like loving children, we should seek to imitate our Father. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). “Follow God’s example ... as dearly loved children” (Eph 5:1). “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1Pet 1:14-16). We should do this to honor our Father: “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

And we should see our fellow believers as brothers and sisters. “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1John 4:20-21).

So, as Packer says, our Father wants us to “act up to our position as royal children by manifesting the family likeness (conforming to Christ), furthering the family welfare (loving the brethren) and maintaining the family honor (seeking God’s glory). This is his work of sanctification.”1 (A topic we’ll return to.)

If you only read one thing I recommend, make it JI Packer’s writing on adoption, “Sons of God” in Knowing God.

1 JI Packer, Knowing God
2 James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith

Part of Christianity 101